Palo Alto fails to find compromise in compost debate

Local environmentalists divided over new proposal for city-run operation for treating organic waste

After a brief respite, Palo Alto's leading environmentalists are once again clashing over the future of local composting -- a debate that brought a crowd to Tuesday's City Council meeting.

With no compromise in sight, the council agreed to defer a decision to a later date.

The latest round in the city's long and complex battle over how to handle the city's organic waste was prompted by a new recommendation from city staff to reject all three proposals that the city has received from the private sector for overhauling the city's process. Instead, staff proposed having the city take charge of building and operating a new waste-to-energy facility, which would first process sewage sludge and then in a second phase treat food scraps. Only later would staff deal with the city's yard trimmings, potentially through a different process.

The recommendation, at least in concept, initially seemed to bring closer together the two camps of environmentalists who clashed in November 2011 over Measure E, a successful measure that "undedicated" 10 acres of parkland in the Baylands and made the land available for an anaerobic-digestion plant. The debate had pitted environmentalists who wanted to keep a composting operation local against conservationists who argued against building an anaerobic digester in the Baylands.

During a brief discussion in February, speakers from both camps praised staff's proposal as a promising one, particularly in its determination that only about 3.8 acres of the Measure E site would be needed for a composting operation. But the enthusiasm has cooled considerably in recent two weeks, as staff released more details and supporters of Measure E realized that under the new timeline, the yard-trimmings portion wouldn't be in place until 2022. Residents who supported the Baylands anaerobic digester also challenged staff's economic analysis, which they said understates the costs of a city-run operation. They urged the council not to reject the proposals to build a Baylands plant from the firms Harvest Power and We Generation (a third proposal from the firm Synagro entailed exporting all three waste streams).

Faced with pressure from Measure E supporters, Public Works staff on Tuesday morning issued an alternative recommendation. The last-minute proposal would reject the private-sector offers but also calls for the immediate issuance of a new request for proposals for waste management, with a provision that explicitly states the city's desire to use the Measure E site for composting of yard waste. The recommendation irked conservationists who opposed Measure E.

Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, praised the original plan proposed by staff -- a plan that would not use the Measure E site in the near term.

"Now, it's completely changed again," Kleinhaus said of the eleventh-hour recommendation, noting that her organization will probably oppose it.

Emily Renzel, who led the opposition to Measure E, likewise praised staff's initial recommendation and panned the Tuesday alternative, which places a greater emphasis on compost and the 10-acre site. She said the original plan succeeded in merging two separate goals: building facilities to treat biosolids (and thereby retire the city's sludge-burning incinerators) and coming up with a way to process the other two streams of organic waste. Staff's proposed Organic Management Plan, she said, "makes efficient use of city resources, including land."

She criticized the city for introducing the alternative recommendation Tuesday morning.

"It has been most distressing to have a last-minute substitute presented by staff after at least four months of participating in what was supposedly a collaborative process," said Renzel, who was one of nearly 80 residents at the meeting. "Some of us in the community feel betrayed by this latest change outside of the public eye."

This feeling of betrayal was the only thing that united the two sides on Tuesday. Proponents of Measure E said the initial staff proposal, which saves composting for the final phase, runs counter to the wishes of the 65 percent of voters -- those who supported the measure.

"If you decide to keep composting in Palo Alto, you will have the support of a huge majority of the citizens," said Carolyn Curtis, who helped lead the Measure E drive.

Some residents submitted letters with similar sentiments. Jeffrey Hook argued that "local processing of all of our compostable materials makes the most ecological sense and therefore the most economic sense."

Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, another Measure E campaign leader, said he was puzzled by staff's assertion that a local composting operation cannot be put in place before 2020 or 2022. He said he and his group, Palo Alto Green Energy, opposed staff's prior recommendation but can accept the Tuesday addition "in the spirit of compromise."

"We appreciate that it does address the issue of compost," Drekmeier said of the new recommendation. "It's really important to send a strong message to staff that the people voted to undedicate the Measure E (land), to make it available. That is the site where we should put the composting."

The latest skirmish in the simmering environmentalist feud flummoxed the council and Public Works staff, who just weeks earlier felt like they were getting close to an agreement. Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said staff had thought its initial recommendation would strike a compromise and "would get us through these landmines out there without running into them."

"The closer we got to tonight, the more we realized that we didn't have that," Bobel said.

Staff responded by crafting an alternative, Bobel said, only to learn that conservationists are "vehemently opposed" to the revised proposal.

When Councilman Karen Holman observed that the two sides seemed close to a compromise just two months ago and ask what happened, she didn't get any clear answers. City Manager James Keene noted that "there's a difference of opinion in the community" and that "there's never a guarantee" that people will agree on everything until the process gets closer to the conclusion.

The council Tuesday did agree on one thing: to defer any decisions to a future date. Given that staff's alternative recommendation was just released earlier that day, Councilman Larry Klein proposed at the beginning of the discussion that the council not take any action. His colleagues quickly agreed and unanimously voted to delay action until a future meeting, possibly as early as May 12.

"I've learned a lot in my 15 months on the council but on top of the list is how important process is to Palo Alto, especially when it comes to contentious issues and important issues, and this issue is clearly both," Councilman Marc Berman said.

Meanwhile, Harvest Power and We Generation continue to hold out hope that they'll ultimately be selected. On Tuesday, the two companies submitted a joint letter to the council in which they disputed staff's cost projections for a city-led operation and offered to work together on a proposal that would meet all of Palo Alto's needs. The existing proposals, the two companies wrote in a joint letter, have "everything in place to move ahead immediately in implementing a state-of-the-art facility."

The city's proposed process, they wrote, creates the potential for higher costs, could lead to a longer project completion schedule and could bring "inefficiencies in communication and job completion." They also wrote that if "something doesn't work properly regarding price, schedule, or performance, the potential exists for the designer to point to the construction contractor for poor performance and for the construction contractor to point to poor design."

"Resulting disputes must be resolved by the City and ultimately may lead to the City paying to 'fix' the problem," the letter states, describing a situation that very closely resembles Palo Alto's recent struggles to complete the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center.

Paul Sellew, founder of Harvest Power, said he agrees with the goals of the city's plan for organic waste, but argued that the partnership of his firm and We Generation could produce the results far faster. The partnership could create and support a facility that takes care of all three waste streams by 2018 at the latest, he said. Tom Bintz, representing We Generation, also asked the council to consider the private-sector solution on the table.

"We want to see the city have a showcase facility that exceeds expectations," Bintz said.


Like this comment
Posted by John Kelley
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2014 at 6:37 am

Phil Bobel should be commended not only for his hard work and dedication but also for offering an alternative recommendation that presents a sound compromise.

We should all salute Phil and move together without further acrimony towards embracing the alternative approach he has wisely put forward.

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Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2014 at 7:44 am

Although I have moved to Capitola, I am still vitally interested in Palo Alto where I was quite active for more than 40 years, especially participating in the four projects described below where we reached a compromise. A key ingredient for putting together the groups was to get people with ALL points of view to sit down together with a willingness to reach a compromise.

It seems to me that IDEO would be interested in working with the City on the this project/proposal/plan.

Four successful facilitated projects:

•••Cable television access programing: 1984/85: Developed guidelines for access, e.g., community-based programming, as part of the franchise process.

•••Individual Review Guidelines: 2001/2002 approximately. Ed Gawf worked with co-chairs John Northway, Annette Ashton and Carroll Harrington to select focus group focusing on selecting participants with different points of view, e.g., the historic preservation ordinance debacle. It took 16 months, but by the time we went to council it was totally vetted...including at least two community meetings, two Planning Commission hearings and getting Richard Alexander to speak on our behalf.

•••Palo Alto Climate Protection Plan: 2008 approximately. About 25 people representing the City, Chamber, environmental organizations and interested citizens. Final facilitation by Steve Bishop, IDEO.

•••Reusable bag ordinance: Approximately 2008 or 2009, It took six months. Phil Bobel ably facilitated a group that had reps from Walgreens, Safeway, California Restaurant Association, Chamber of Commerce, City of Palo Alto, American Chemical Council and interested citizens. An outstanding example here is that Walgreens said that there was not room to have paper bags at its pharmacy checkout counters. They now have paper bags at Walgreens Pharmacy!!!

Green gigabytes of gratitude for great groups with glorious gab!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Hilary
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 30, 2014 at 8:35 am

It has taken 5 years of "Palo Alto Process" to get to this muddled outcome. Staff recommended a "solution" that will not be implemented until 2022 and even more outrageously does not offer a local composting answer. This IS the Palo Alto Process and is the result of poor leadership that is not able to effectively manage controversy but instead kicks the can.

How are we as a society to deal with the complexity of solving global warming if an enlighted city like ours can't move forward with this project that has such clear green benefits? Disheartening and embarrassing.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Grandma
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 30, 2014 at 8:41 am

This article is frustratingly misleading. The Measure E proposal overwhelmingly passed by Palo Alto voters provides 10 acres of the landfill for development of a replacement for the ancient solid waste incinerators which spew 2300 metric tons of GHG into the air every year. That means that in since 2011 Palo Alto has added 6900 metric tons to the atmosphere and you can do the math - the longer we delay, the more we add. Larry Klein is right - this is URGENT.

And the people who voted for Measure E wanted to keep green waste composting in Palo Alto. Since the closure of the landfill, Palo Alto has added substantial amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere by trucking our garbage, recycling and green waste to Sunnyvale, San Jose and Hollister. Yard waste alone accounts for 7 round trips per week - that goes to Hollister. That is not what we wanted. We have to stop this. Putting a green waste composing operation in place quickly on the 3.8 flat acres of Measure E site is a great solution.

I do not understand why the only people in Palo Alto that are deemed "conservationists" are the ones who are doing everything possible, including filing a frivolous lawsuit, to delay the incinerator replacement process, and to try to keep any of the Measure E site from being used, even it if compromised the project. The rest of us who are seriously concerned about consequences of CO2 emissions, including global warming, climate change, sea level rise, and the acidification of the the oceans with its ensuing consequences, are also environmentalists. We are looking forward to the world we are creating for our children and grandchildren and we do NOT like what we see. It's no longer enough to just create parks. As a 21st Century Environmentalist, I cannot condone Palo Alto even considering using carbon-based fuel to ship our waste - sewage sludge, food waste or yard waste - anywhere, when the technology is available to manage it ourselves.

In the process of researching Palo Alto options, our hardworking City Staff found technologies that would replace the incinerators with units that would anaerobically digest the dewatered sewage sludge, would utilize methane captured from the dump for power, and would incorporated food waste into the process and also produce useable power. It also has a green waste composting component. Check it out: Web Link. Washington DC is in the process of building a large installation. The technology is modular, can be sized to fit a city's need, and there are units in place and under construction in the UK and Europe. This is the process that Harvest and We Generation is proposing, and it is available right now. It includes a dewatering unit that could be put in place quickly, allowing the incinerators to be decommissioned expeditiously.

Finally, sea level rise.

Go to Web Link and plot sea level rise of 1 meter. The only part of the Baylands that will not be under water is the landfill, and possibly part of the WTP. If this does not seriously concern you, it should. I cannot begin to imagine the costs of building levees to protect the WTP and the parts of Palo Alto that will be under water. If we do not do as much as we all can to reduce GHG emissions we are passing that along to our children and grandchildren. I somehow do not think they will thank us. We also do not have to wait until sea level rises to that level to feel the effects. It has risen enough that we are at risk from El Nino flooding now.

It's time to stop dragging this process out.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 30, 2014 at 10:14 am

Grandma, what do you propose we do with the processed human sewage sludge, once it has gone through the anaerobic process?

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 10:41 am

So Emily Renzel and her people and Peter Drekmeier and his people meet with city staff in good faith and work out a compromise that meets our city’s objective needs, like our city council says it likes things to happen. Then at the last possible minute city staff alters the “compromise” behind closed doors to favor one side’s ideology, carefully avoiding informing the other side until the fait is accompli.

That is flatly dishonest. I can think of other characterizations, but the Weekly would rightfully censor them.

OK city council. Now you see why it is so difficult to involve citizens in city process. Their hard work and time investment can be arbitrarily trashed in an instant.

Like this comment
Posted by A Noun Ea Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 30, 2014 at 11:10 am

Sounds like the city did an end run around the legislative intent (maybe holding "true" to the word) of what was passed by the voters. I wonder what will be the "Pearl Harbor" of climate change it will take. Probably in Palo Alto, as all the planted trees dry out, a heat wave and high winds---- a fire ala Oakland hills.

Like this comment
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Apr 30, 2014 at 11:12 am

This appears to be a very divisive issue among a small number of people.

Why not have these people go away, hire a mediator, and play nice until they come up with an agreement. Then let the city council deal with.

Why have the city council get involved in a food fight between 2 groups of people who are unwilling to compromise?

It's not as if this issue has earth-shaking ramifications.

Like this comment
Posted by Tired of their crap
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 11:21 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 1:12 pm

"The Measure E proposal overwhelmingly passed by Palo Alto voters provides 10 acres of the landfill for development of a replacement for the ancient solid waste incinerators which spew 2300 metric tons of GHG into the air every year."

Even if that were correct, the joke's on you.

First, this apparent sabotage of the process delays the replacement of the ancient incinerator, which was part of the package that the council was supposed to review but now won't until much later. That needlessly added months to the incinerator's operation.

Second, voters voted to put a "garbage to energy" thingy on those 10 acres that would be totally out of sight under a "grassy roof" while delivering magic energy to an adoring citizenry. That was the promise, but they will get no such thing. Peter D. & Co. want only to compost leaves and twigs and grass clippings on that land, like Palo Alto did before. Those decaying organics will release many tons of the GHGs CO2 and CH4 into our atmosphere every year, but will generate not one whit of energy.

The Measure E supporters have been had.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 30, 2014 at 1:16 pm

The winner last night was the foxes that live in the Baylands property in question. A young lady with a U-Tube presentation was a big winner. Can you put the U-Tube on the web site so everyone can see it?

What the problem here is maintaining the natural animal right of ways that have been carved out in the Baylands.

Like this comment
Posted by Tired of the crap
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 2:42 pm

I am enjoying the infighting among the local " environmentalists". For too long our city has been held hostage by their outrageous demands and pipe dreams. Time for them to move on.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike Muller
a resident of Woodside
on Apr 30, 2014 at 3:41 pm

At your February 10 Meeting, this local entrepreneur made recommendations regarding the onsite organics conversion. BIOGAS Equity 2 RFP submission was in line what had been presented to Phil Bobel in May of 2012. Biogas2's submission was rejected because two files were submitted three days past the deadline and as a technology Agent lacked some of the financial backing sought.
Biogas2 recommends to place two UDR AD digesters on the vacant 1/2 acre and keep the food scraps separate from the sewer sludge and take advantage of the gained organic fertilizer that has a value of at four times that of electric energy. The sewer sludge was partially dewatered and separately digested and its fertilizer value is minimal. Biogas from both systems are combined with the landfill gas and converted with CHPs generators to destroy the methane. Biogas2 teamed up with DPR Construction and priced the entire system at $10M with construction time of 18 month after permits.

Your Staff's new proposal is too conservative, extremely expensive ($10M for dewatering alone) and not in the best interest of Palo Alto residence. The objective should be to process waste near where it is generated and minimize trucking for obvious reasons.

Synagro uses decanter centrifuges for sewer sludge dewatering and pelletize the dried biosolids at SMUD. Ading food waste to the mix caused proplems last year. LA started a two year test to add a small amount of food scraps.
Mixing large amounts of food scraps with sewer sludge to gain more electric power is not economical because of fertilizer value loss
We question the CAMBI steam hydrolysis cost benefits because of your low electric cost. There are newer technologies such as cavitation to extract more biogas. Our represented UDR fixed bed register AD technology has proven to generate 30 more biogas over Complete Stirred Tank Reactor systems.
Staff's preference for concrete tanks was popular in the 70s. Today, one uses stainless steel clad steel on tanks that have oxygen present.
Our represented UDR technology is expandable with population growth. It's moveable when sea levels rise
Palo Alto leveraging low interest rate SRF funds is a big benefit to the Biogas2 proposal
By summer, Biogas2 can point at a US reference plant in Michigan and construction of a 9.4MW plant in Grove City, Ohio will be completed in early 2015.
A wet gasification plant converting ocean drift wood will come online this year that will be ideal to eliminate 95% of the digested biosolids together with construction wood, plastics and your yard trimmings
Staff's stretched time table will allow many new technologies to mature and certainly obsolete the proposed ones that have been around for many years.
The Bioenergy Association of California that I co-founded can be very helpful with Staff's CEQA permitting challenge
Leveraging the Biogas2 proposal will allow completion of the waste conversion project by end of 2015 assuming permits received by end of 2014. In early 2016 our represented SRS wet gasification plant can be online after the incinerator has been removed. Why wait till 2020?
Palo Alto can then use the 3.5 acres for green houses, leveraging generated heat and fertilizer for hydroponics and supply Palo Alto's farmers markets year round with fresh produce. Now that will make citizens happy.

We support canceling the initial RFP and BIOGAS Equity 2 will be able to respond to upcoming RFPs.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm

>Mixing large amounts of food scraps with sewer sludge to gain more electric power is not economical because of fertilizer value loss

What does "fertilizer value" mean?

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 30, 2014 at 3:50 pm

>A wet gasification plant converting ocean drift wood will come online this year that will be ideal to eliminate 95% of the digested biosolids together with construction wood, plastics and your yard trimmings

What is the gasification method?

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Found this link on a related thread: www.Web Link


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Posted by Outside the fray
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 30, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Please forgive me for not being up to speed, but I thought Measure E was billed as being necessary in order to just assess the feasibility and study, get bids, etc. because there was no point in making any plans if voters would never undedicate the parkland for any reason. However, I thought we were promised it wasnt a sure thing the parkland would be gone, but that residents would continue to be involved in choices as things proceeded.

Did I miss something?

Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 30, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Outside the Fray is spot on.

The Pro E ballot argument reads:

"If City Council determines a new facility is not cost-effective, they may rededicate
the land as park after 10 years, or sooner with a public vote."

Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 1, 2014 at 7:42 am

Yes, we must rally around Emily's point.

If Palo Alto could show that a new environmentally sound way to handle waste that also stood on it's own economic merits, we wanted to provide that opportunity. That needed to include a market rate rent for the 20 acres of Palo Alto land. (we all know that is not a small amount)

Measure E was not a "subsidize a commercial development project at all cost to promote the business interests of some cronies."

It is interesting that those "environmentalist" don't like the plan now that it does not include private developer buddies.

In my book, we have allowed enough time for the studies, as promised to the voters, and it is time to prove the economic feasibility or return the Parklands to the recreational use they were intended.

If the project is built, the expectation would be that the rent charged to the operations would be enough to rent an alternative 20 acres somewhere in Palo Alto. That is only fair and consistent with the historical City policy of departments charging fair market rent to other users.

Any other model, or delay, will be an intentional deception.

Let's get on with what was agreed to in the ballot.

Best regards,

Tim Gray

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 1, 2014 at 8:31 am

Timothy Grey - you mention an alternative 20 acres "somewhere" Palo Alto. What does that mean? Palo Alto is totally built out to its borders. It sounds like you have a location already identified. Are we filling in the baylands for this effort? Is that why there is a build up of sludge in the baylands? The build up of sludge is a separate issue that will be worked on - to remove it and put the baylands back into a water based environmentally controlled area. It is a flood control area and needs to be treated as such. Build up of sludge is what is contributing to the flooding we are so concerned. with.

Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm

To Resident 1,

Thank you for the question. You reinforce my core point in that we should not take lightly the value of 20 acres of Park land when it cannot be replaced.

There are those that want to treat the 20 acres as "free" since the City already owns it. That would be a deliberate robbery of the Citizens.

Thank you for making the point that the 20 acres is near priceless, and it seems unlikely that any financial feasibility study would justify using 20 acres of valuable Palo Alto land to manufacture gas.

Let's be real, and recognize that our Carbon footprint is not just carbon released in Palo Alto. So perhaps a little trucking to a lesser cost place might pollute, but preserving a few more acres of trees in the foothills (or in another state for that matter) would be much less of a cost, and a greater environmental benefit, than trying to fit a digester here.

While many people accuse Palo Altans of living in a bubble, the fact is that we do not, and our efforts must be based on the greater good of the Planet, not some environmental trophy that feeds a false pride of being "green."

Let's truly be "green" and take a larger view of the carbon equation. Let's truly be "green" and preserve our parklands. When seen in the light of day, the proposals have been another commercial development hiding behind a Green Flag.

Clarity that the land must be returned to the Citizens for recreational use is gained from this larger global view.

I think if we could put the personal interests aside and re-dedicate ourselves to the greater good, we would soon be restoring our bayfront park.

Tim Gray

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 1, 2014 at 12:44 pm

To Timothy Gray

Hear, Hear

Like this comment
Posted by joe
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 1, 2014 at 9:36 pm

We need all ten acres for for composting,that is what we voted for.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 1, 2014 at 10:31 pm

I recall when this was originally passed. We were not in a drought situation, we still had open space, we were not built out to the borders. Look at where we are today - HSR / Electrification will change the Caltrain rail line; we are built out to the borders with pressure to tear down and replace with bigger developments; we have new concerns with the school system that is going through personnel changes; we are at odds over how the downtown city is built out. We are concerned with where our water will come from in the future with drought situations. Our world has shifted dramatically.

Of all the things to be concerned with is a showcase garbage dump? And listening to the presentations it is not convincing that this would produce all that is claimed as to energy production. I feel like the other cities surrounding us are moving ahead on the main quality of life issues. While I think there needs to be an improvement in the current system I think that 20 acres devoted to this function is overkill in the bigger scheme of things. We can do a lot with those 20 acres to satisfy our other commitments our political representatives keep committing us to.

We all appreciate that at the time it was a noble cause that made sense in the bigger scheme of things but the world is moving very fast now with other priorities.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of College Terrace

on Sep 26, 2017 at 7:59 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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